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  • James Houser

November 7, 1811 - Tecumseh and the Battle of Tippecanoe

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

November 7, 1811. The invading aliens used their superior technology and overwhelming numbers to conquer and destroy their homes. Now Tecumseh of the Shawnee has done his best to unite the Indian tribes of the American continent against a mortal threat to their way of life, but it will not be enough. Tecumseh’s Confederacy will be beaten by William Henry Harrison’s Americans today at Tippecanoe – the nail in the coffin for the Indians of the Old Northwest.

This is one of those lucky times for me when the dates nearly line up for a good narrative. Three days ago on November 4, I talked about the major American defeat at the Battle of Wabash, where the Northwest Indians – including the Shawnee, Miami, and Lenape tribes – handed the United States Army a stunning defeat in 1791. Most of the details of that struggle aren’t super important to today’s narrative, but they do represent a coherent narrative and a change of perspective. In THAT post, I discussed how embarrassing failures at the hands of Native tribes helped wake the United States to the need for a more disciplined and organized standing Army. In this post, though, my focus will be on the Indian narrative – particularly, the narrative of one man: Tecumseh.

Tecumseh was a visionary: the hero the American Indian needed, if not the hero they deserved. Tecumseh means “shooting star” or “panther across the sky” in the Shawnee language, and this was an apt metaphor for the trajectory of his life. The Shawnee leader became a representative for the failed hopes of the Native Americans, a symbol of unification even though he failed to accomplish that goal.

In 1794, the American army of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne defeated the combined forces of many Northwest Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northern Ohio. With this triumph, Wayne forced the Shawnee, Miami, and many other tribes to sign the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. Based on this document, the Indians gave up most of Ohio and southern Indiana along with several other ancestral lands in order to maintain peace and safety from the United States. They sold these lands for about $20,000.

The Miami leader Little Turtle and the Shawnee leader Black Hoof both took this deal because they saw no other option. It was their only opportunity to preserve the Northwest Indians from total destruction by the powerful American forces, and they feared the consequences if their bloody peace should ever fall apart. Black Hoof and Little Turtle became two of the chief advocates of continued Native peace with the oncoming white settlers.

Though these leaders claimed to see the writing on the wall, many of the younger Indian warriors resisted any settlement with the pale faces. Among them was the young warrior Tecumseh, who had fought at Fallen Timbers as the 25-year-old leader of a small Shawnee band. Tecumseh was the leader of the unreconciled Indians – those that refused to acknowledge the Treaty of Greenville and believed that the Indians should unite across the continent in order to defeat the Americans. Tecumseh and his family had been forced to flee from multiple villages and homelands due to white aggression and settlement, including the Revolutionary War campaigns of Virginia officer George Rogers Clark. Tecumseh’s dislocation and constant travel had sent him all over the Indian settlements of America, giving him a broader outlook than most of his people had.

Tecumseh would become convinced that the American Indians had to unite, one and all, to preserve their homelands and their way of life. This would be no easy task. Many of the Indian tribes viewed each other with far more bitterness and long-standing enmity than they did the Americans. One of the great mistakes of natives all over the world during the age of European expansion once again came to the fore: they viewed the European invaders as a tool to use against their ancestral enemies, rather than the existential threat they really were. Multiple Indian tribes had allied with the United States in order to gain whiskey, manufactured goods, and especially guns – all the better to use against rival tribes. The issue, of course, was that the Americans were quite happy to let the Indians kill each other as the frontier pushed slowly westward. The Americans could fight any tribe individually, with virtually no interference from other groups; only rarely, such as at the Battle of Wabash, did tribes unite against the white invaders.

This was the outcome Tecumseh sought to avoid, and this was the quality that made him such a visionary. A great orator, an enormously charismatic presence and a strategic mastermind, Tecumseh became determined to build a coalition of Native tribes that could resist American expansion. Given old tribal hatreds and rivalries, self-preservation and appeals to reason would not be enough; instead, anyone trying to unify the widely separated Indian tribes would have to appeal to their spiritual and traditional sides. In this realm, Tecumseh had no better ally than his younger brother.

Lalawethika had been a bit of a failure as a young man, known for his laziness and excessive use of alcohol. Tecumseh’s younger brother had a very poor reputation as something close to the town drunk. One night in 1805, though, he got blackout drunk and apparently experienced a vision. In this vision he was visited by the Great Spirit, which told him that the Indians needed to return to their traditional ways, reject the settler way of life, and unify against the hated Evil Spirit of the Americans. Whatever the actual source of this vision (sounds very similar to Jesus, Mohammed, Nat Turner, or Joseph Smith), Lalawethika set aside his old name and took a new one, calling himself Tenskwatawa, “the Open Door.” He was more commonly known to the Americans, though, simply as “The Prophet.”

Tenskwatawa abandoned alcohol, guns, and Western goods, and began travelling among the Northwest Indians preaching of the old ways and the Great Spirit. He became something of a religious celebrity and quickly attracted a large following. The Native Americans had suffered plagues, famines, military raids by colonists and the loss of their ancestral homes. Many people from various tribes joined The Prophet’s following, which promised a spiritual revival and an eminent apocalypse that would finally drive the white man from the old lands of the Great Spirit’s chosen people. Tenskwatawa promoted Native unity, rejection of modern technology, and united resistance to the American government’s seizure of more lands. People who did associate with the white man were both traitors and guilty of witchcraft.

While Tenskwatawa was the spiritual leader of this new movement, Tecumseh proved to be the political and military mastermind. It is uncertain how much Tecumseh bought into his brother’s newfound religious conversion, but he certainly realized its implications. Behind the Prophet and his appeal to traditionalism, the Indians could finally unite. Their main opposition at this point were not the Americans (who didn’t know and didn’t really care that much) but the other Indian leaders. Chiefs like Little Turtle and Black Hoof, who had led the resistance to the whites back in the 1790s, were concerned about the consequences of the Prophet’s movement. They worried that it could sabotage their precious peace with the whites. Black Hoof in particular took the lead in Indian opposition to the antagonistic, war-making ways of Tecumseh and the Prophet.

By 1807, Tecumseh was already making trouble for The System. He turned up at a conference between Indian leaders and U.S. Indian Agents to discuss the current settlement. Tecumseh innocently asserted that he only wanted to stay at peace and follow the will of the Great Spirit. Given his and his brother’s rhetoric, though, it was obvious that Tecumseh was prepared to resist further American incursions. In 1808, Tecumseh and the Prophet were forced by American settler pressure and by Black Hoof to retreat deeper into Indian territory.

Tenskwatawa led his multi-tribal faction to settle at the junction of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers, near modern Lafayette, Indiana. The whites would later term this settlement “Prophetstown.”

Prophetstown grew quickly as hundreds of followers flocked to the emerging socio-religious center of the Northwest Indians. The Prophet’s preaching spread across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky, and Prophetstown grew from a refugee settlement to a major Native American cultural and spiritual center. Under the spiritual leadership of Tenskwatawa and the political leadership of his brother Tecumseh, it quickly became the lodestone for a great confederation built to resist the white menace.

Tecumseh soon overshadowed his brother as the primary leader at Prophetstown. While Tenskwatawa had provided the rhetoric and ideology, Tecumseh made it his mission to turn it into reality. Fourteen different tribes soon had members at Prophetstown, and this growing movement was attracting the attention of the Americans – one American in particular. It’s time to bring William Henry Harrison into the picture.

Harrison, a Virginia native, had been an officer in the very early U.S. Army and had fought at Fallen Timbers across from Tecumseh. In 1801 he had been appointed Governor of the Indiana Territory, where he built a great plantation home at Vincennes in 1805. One of Harrison’s primary jobs as Governor was to obtain titles to Indian lands by hook or by crook and sell it off to white settlers, increasing the population enough for Indiana to achieve statehood – also fueled by his own political ambitions to become the preeminent figure in the future state of Indiana. Harrison set about his task with aplomb, wheedling and scheming to expand his future state’s territory at the expense of the Indians. In this task, he would be sorely tested by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.

Tecumseh openly insulted and encouraged reprisals against Indian leaders who sold tribal lands to the Americans, believing them to be traitors to the broader cause. He openly denounced the signatories of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, which in 1809 granted huge tracts of future Illinois and Indiana to Harrison’s control. Harrison had openly bribed many of the Indian chiefs with liquor and money, and many of the smaller tribes included in the deal had signed no treaty of any kind. For these groups, Tecumseh became a rallying point, especially since many of Prophetstown’s inhabitants were from tribes that had lost their lands – tribes such as the Piankeshaw, Kickapoo, and Wea. To Tecumseh, one Native American who sold his land was betraying all the others. They had to unite! Unite now, while there was still time!

Tecumseh began to travel among the tribes, encouraging and cajoling them not to give in to the white settlers. As time passed, he ventured farther and farther, travelling south to Alabama and north to Michigan, trying to encourage the Indian tribes to unite and resist. His main targets were not the Americans – they were not his audience – but the chiefs who bent over to them and gave away the ancestral land. He urged the various tribes to put aside their differences and come together in a great Confederacy that could oppose the white man.

Twice in 1810 and 1811, Tecumseh took large bands of warriors directly to Harrison’s plantation at Vincennes to confront the governor directly. During these events, Harrison allegedly feared for his life – though Tecumseh was in control and the American was in no danger. Tecumseh demanded that Harrison revoke the “illegal” Treaty of Fort Wayne and return the Indians’ land. When the Governor refused, Tecumseh cajoled him: “Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? How can we have confidence in the white people?”

At this point, Tecumseh was looking for outside allies. He realized that the Indians on their own would not be enough, so he began to talk to the British. The United States was on the brink of war with Britain in what would become the War of 1812, and Tecumseh realized that only by counterbalancing American with British strength could he achieve his goal. To encourage the British to support his movement, Tecumseh made his truly great journey across the southern Indian regions of the United States. It was nothing less than a political speaking tour, a grand attempt to rally all the Native Americans from the Gulf to the Canadian border in a grand alliance against the United States.

This was Tecumseh’s greatest hour, the “might-have-been” of history. By all accounts, the Shawnee leader was an amazing orator, able to convince many whites who heard him speak in addition to the local tribes. He combined ancient spiritual beliefs and attachment to tradition, very old beliefs, with a new and radical notion of tribal unionism and collective resistance. In March 1811, French astronomer Honore Flaugergues had spotted a great comet travelling across the sky, an event recorded across the world; Tecumseh pointed to this miraculous apparition and linked it to the meaning of his name, “Shooting Star.” He declared it to be an omen that if the tribes followed him, he could lead them to union, victory, and the salvation of their peoples.

Tecumseh’s words to the Muscogee, his mother’s tribe:

“Muscogees, brethren of my mother, brush from your eyelids the sleep of slavery; once more strike for vengeance; once more for your country. The spirits of the mighty dead complain. Their tears drop from the weeping skies. Let the white race perish. They seize your land; they corrupt your women; they trample on the ashes of your dead! Back, whence they came, upon a trail of blood, they must be driven. …Dig their very corpses from the grave. Our country must give no rest to a white man's bones. This is the will of the Great Spirit, revealed to my brother, his familiar, the Prophet of the Lakes. He sends me to you. All the tribes of the north are dancing the war-dance. Two mighty warriors across the seas will send us arms. Tecumseh will soon return to his country. My prophets shall tarry with you... When the white men approach you the yawning earth shall swallow them up. Soon shall you see my arm of fire stretched athwart the sky. I will stamp my foot at Tippecanoe, and the very earth shall shake!”

Despite Tecumseh’s travels, his visions, his apparitions, and his visions of doom and glory, most Indian tribes refused to unite with his Confederacy. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1811, the great leader barnstormed across Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, trying his best to gain the support of a wide Indian Confederacy. All the great tribes – the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, the Seminoles – rejected him. Only the Creek showed any interest, and their uprising would be too little and too late when Andrew Jackson crushed them in the Creek War in 1813. Tecumseh’s mission, visionary and radical, was simply too scary for the other tribes of America.

It should be apparent by now who I sympathize with. The American Indians were parochial, localist units, more concerned with the fate of their 100 or so immediate followers than the fate of far-flung tribes they had little contact with. Only Tecumseh had the vision and scope to realize that unless they united with these disparate tribes, the Americans would devour them all. By elevating local concerns over inter-tribal problems, the local communities would eventually be destroyed. Tecumseh’s slogan was simply “Join or Die.” “Why should the Choctaw ally with the far-away Shawnee?” asked the Choctaw Chief Pushmataha, who had a treaty with the Americans and looked at Tecumseh’s rebellion as downright quixotic. He simply refused to realize that eventually the white man would come for him too.

These were people who were shown the way to salvation…and thought it was too risky. In the end, inaction would end up being too risky. By refusing to ally when they had a chance, they brought the doom of nations upon them. And that fate was already approaching Prophetstown.

Harrison had learned about Tecumseh’s speaking tour, and realized that he had to break up this problem before it got out of hand. The United States was extremely concerned, for good reason about a pan-Indian alliance. He was determined to strike while Tecumseh, the major rallying figure and a formidable military adversary, was out of the picture. On September 26, 1811, Harrison – who was also a General in the Kentucky militia – marched out from Vincennes with 250 Regular Army soldiers of the 4th Infantry along with 600 Indiana and Kentucky militia. Unlike the disastrous expedition of St. Clair in 1791, Harrison brought in regular supply shipments and kept tight discipline on his troops all along the road to Prophetstown.

On November 6, Harrison arrived in front of Prophetstown and was met by a delegation from the Prophet himself. Tenskwatawa was asking for a truce, hoping to negotiate a peaceful meeting. The suspicious Harrison agree, but quickly withdrew to a hill overlooking the Tippecanoe River and set up a set of defensive positions. He was right to do so, since the Prophet had no intention of negotiating.

Tecumseh, of course, was still away on his great speaking tour. Without his older brother’s experienced and calculating hand on the rudder, the Prophet was full of spirit but not much sense. He encouraged his followers to attack the camp of the white man, and promised them that his spells would protect them from being harmed. This was a common belief among the more mystically inclined resistors to white invasion, from Indiana to Africa to Malaysia, but it would work no better at Tippecanoe than at Isandlwana or at Malacca. There is also some evidence that the Prophet had lost control of his own followers, who had determined to attack the Americans with or without his permission. Borne away on the tide of patriotic and religious fervor, the Prophet Tenskwatawa agreed to a dawn attack.

The Battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811, was a predictable disaster. Harrison’s pickets detected the Indian advance before dawn, and the soldiers had slept with their weapons loaded – a far cry from those bad days at the Wabash. All along the American perimeter the Indian confederates attacked, nearly encircled by the sudden onslaught. Though they were not exactly caught sleeping, the militia were soon at the point of being overwhelmed, and several of their officers were killed.

Harrison quickly gained control, however, and ordered several limited counterattacks that restored breaches in the line. Throughout the next two hours, the crackle of musketry echoed over the rocks of northern Indiana as the militia and regulars threw back attack after attack. It was a near run at several points, especially the far southern end where the Indians overran several companies, but by midday the Indians had been repulsed at every side. Running out of ammunition and slowly realizing they were outnumbered, Tenskwatawa’s men began to fall back, only to be thrown into full rout by Harrison’s small number of dragoons.

Back at Prophetstown, the Indian leaders confronted the Prophet himself with the lies he had told them of protective spells. The Prophet tried to blame his wife for poisoning his medicines (low blow, dude) and tried to get them to launch a second attack, but the other Indians refused. Seeing his coalition crumble around him, and fearing that Harrison would soon call on reinforcements, Tenskwatawa ordered his followers to flee from Prophetstown. The following day, November 8, Harrison occupied and burned the city that had, for a few years, been the cultural center of Indian resistance to the white man’s expansion.

Tecumseh was furious with his brother’s rash actions and for losing the battle, and continued his expansive efforts – but the Battle of Tippecanoe had gone a long way towards killing any hope of Indian unity. Tecumseh’s fortunes would rise and fall over the next two years, but when the War of 1812 came around, he was able to lead a large remnant of his followers to join the British. He would serve as one of their key allies throughout the first year of the war.

His tactical brilliance and ruthless vision would help them capture Detroit and frustrate American efforts to invade Canada; his British allies had unvarnished admiration for his miraculous Shawnee leader. The Americans, too, gained a grudging respect for their foe, especially when he went out of his way to protect American prisoners after battles and urged the Indians to reject old and savage rituals that were normally performed on the wounded.

But like all shooting stars, Tecumseh eventually had to burn out. At the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada on October 5, 1813, Tecumseh led his Indian forces to fight William Henry Harrison’s American army alongside the British. The Kentucky Mounted Rifles of Colonel Richard M. Johnson broke the Indian lines, and some claimed that Johnson himself had killed Tecumseh – a claim Johnson later used to climb the political ladder to become Vice President to Martin Van Buren. His rallying cry was “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumpsey,” which has to be a competitor for worst American political slogan of all time.

Harrison, of course, used the Battle of Tippecanoe to kickstart his own political career. After serving successfully as a General in the War of 1812, he eventually propelled himself to the Presidency with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” with John Tyler as his Vice President. Perhaps the most idiotic of all Presidential campaigns (yes, including this one), the Harrison campaign barely survived its candidate, who died of disease only a month after his inauguration.

Whatever the fates of his foes, the defeat at Tippecanoe and Tecumseh’s death marked the last attempt any Indian faction ever made to unify the tribes against white settlement. This was also the last time that it really could have succeeded. From now on, the tribes of North America would face the United States alone – and in almost every case, they would lose, and they would die alone. The uniting creed of Tecumseh was never spoken again. Like so many leaders of vision, he had been failed by the people he tried to save. He was the hero they needed, but they rejected him, and in the end they lost everything.

Such is the life of a shooting star.

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